Trust at work: 5 critically important facts to help you earn and maintain it

Trust is, according to some researchers, the most important predictor of organisational success. Why? Because even as the world changes beyond recognition as markets shift, technologies develop and society progresses, human relationships – which ultimately power organisations – remain a constant. And trust lubricates human relationships. Organisations must not, therefore, fail to understand trust. This article looks at five facts about trust that will improve your knowledge of this priceless commodity and help you better earn and maintain it in the workplace.

 

1. There’s more than one type of trust

Researchers tend to divide trust into various forms that exist in the workplace. We’ve previously looked at affective trust and cognitive trust. This time we look at research from Reina and Reina (2007), who split trust into three key types: contractual trust, competence trust and communication trust.

Contractual trust refers to mutual understanding and agreement as well as clear expectations that are met. This is the classic definition of trust – doing what you say you will do. Communication trust refers to speaking honestly, transparently and in pursuit of shared understanding. Gossip, according to the authors, destroys this type of trust.

Competence trust happens when leaders show belief in the abilities of others. This trust is built by asking for opinions. Allowing staff to job craft and by giving people opportunities to actively take part in decision-making and change management. It is destroyed by micromanagement, poor delegation and by a failure to develop and stretch employees.

2. There’s a lot of research on what creates and inhibits trust

Trust is an extremely well-researched subject, especially the factors which go into what creates or inhibits trust. 

The predisposition of the truster is relevant, particularly any significant positive or negative past events related to trust, their appetite for risk and their overall propensity to trust. Overall propensity to trust is influenced by many factors, including event recall: Rempel et al (2001) suggest that people with a greater tendency to trust are more likely to recall positive events.

On the trustee’s side, three dimensions were identified in the meta-analysis. These are ability (setting a compelling direction, creating an enabling structure and knowledge of the tasks at hand), integrity (accountability, belief in justice) and benevolence (coaching, transformational leadership behaviours and a supportive approach).

3. Not everything is equally moderated by trust

Research from Dirks and Ferrin (2001) found that certain outcomes in organisations are more or less likely to be mediated by trust. The authors suggest that uncertainty may play a role in dictating how strongly trust mediates outcomes. In mergers and acquisitions, for example, where there is significant uncertainty, trust becomes key to success.

In general, the authors suggest that the more discretionary outcomes found in organisations – such as organisational citizenship behaviours – are more likely to be strongly mediated by trust, while those that are more aligned with process, rules and compliance (such as absenteeism) are likely to be less-strongly mediated by it.

But it’s important not to forget that rules, process and compliance are all about expectation-setting. And as we discussed above, contractual trust is concerned with matched expectations. Organisations should remember that trust in rule-driven areas like absenteeism can be built through unambiguous policies that are fairly applied.

4. High trust seems to correlate with informal delegation

An interesting from Kovač and Jesenko (2008) found that in organisations with high levels of expressed trust, non-formalised forms of task delegation, communication and perception of organisational operation were more prevalent.

Examples in each of these spheres include delegation through discussion (task delegation), spontaneous conversation (communication) and strong cultural norms (perception of organisational operation). In less trusting environments, more formal forms are prevalent, such as task delegation through performance management or via monthly meetings.

Reflecting on these conclusions, the authors say that developing higher levels of trust within organisations can reduce the need for formal supervision and time-intensive delegation processes. This, they say, can lead to greater efficiency in task implementation as well as higher levels of employee satisfaction.

5. Measuring trust is a difficult, but not impossible, task

The Institute of Leadership and Management recommends against using the question ‘do you trust your manager?’ in employee surveys, for two reasons. The first is that the trustee’s propensity to trust can significantly influence the answer to the question. The second is that the open nature of the question allows employees to choose their own definition of trust.

So what questions should you be asking? The ILM usefully reviewed the literature on trust and developed “six distinguishable and non-overlapping dimensions” that can be used to measure how much trust employees have in CEOs and line managers.

The dimensions are:

  • The ability to perform their role
  • Their understanding of the jobs of the people they lead and manage
  • The fairness with which they treat people
  • Their openness to others’ ideas and opinions
  • The integrity with which they behave
  • Their consistency in their behaviour

These represent aspects of behaviours that can be developed and improved, making them much better candidates for inclusion in employee surveys. They are also less influenced by the employee’s natural propensity to trust and more likely to be assessed objectively.

Want to learn more about trust in the workplace? Take a look at our article on the two key types of trust that leaders must be able to identify and build.